why i organize.

First things first: apologies for the hiatus.  It’s legislative session, which means it’s high tide for the organizing we do around public policy.  And that’s what I want to write about today.

When it comes to our communities, however we may identify, we’ve got a lot to address: discrimination, unemployment, harassment, profiling, lack of access to resources that can help us meet our most basic needs of housing, employment, and taking care of our loved ones.  Some of us face high incarceration rates; some of us face astronomical rates of bias-related assault, and even murder, because of how present, identify or are perceived.  When dominant systems don’t meet our needs, we create parallel systems with what resources we have, to protect ourselves.  And on top of all that, we’ve got to create spaces to build community, spaces where we feel respected, empowered, and authentic. 

So, in amongst all that, why organize?  Why change public policy?  Why seek power in the very systems that seek to disenfranchise us?

I can’t speak for anyone else, and I won’t claim to make a universal or comprehensive case for it, but I will share my reasons for organizing.  Here are a few:

I want to end the need, not just fill it.

Many of us know someone who, right now, today, is getting completely fucked over by the system.  They can’t get food stamps.  Their unemployment has been cut.  They can’t apply for a job or a place to live without fear of deportation.  They can’t take their kid to the hospital and know that they’ll be recognized as a parent.  They can’t seek reproductive health care safely and securely.

And all of us want to fix that—find an attorney, give a friend a place to sleep, send some money.  But when we do that, the problem is likely only temporarily fixed.  And even if it’s completely taken care of for one person, how many hundreds, thousands or millions of people are still in that position?  Individual change alters circumstances for some of us; policy change, when done well, can alter circumstances for all of us.  That is to say, systemic change has the potential to heal what individual change can only bandage.  This isn’t to say that changing a policy makes a problem disappear (hello, hate crimes laws!), but it does give us a voice in the process, an opportunity to resist, and an opportunity to show our lives and experiences as an object lesson for the world at large (see: Angie Zapata).  And for some of us, that’s all we’ve got.

 

I want public education.

Statewide and national policy campaigns are some of the largest, most concerted projects in existence that are designed to shift public understanding of our communities.  Many Americans learned a whole hell of a lot more about LGBT communities through Prop 8.  For some white US citizens, Comprehensive Immigration Reform is the only reason they even give a second thought to hateful opposition rhetoric about immigrant communities.  Whatever the campaign, people in the middle—who may also be our coworkers, neighbors, friends and family—hear the messages put out by advocates of our communities.  Now, whether or not those are messages all of us want to spread is another question, and one on which there’s plenty of debate.  But if we don’t acknowledge the power those messages have, then we’re lying to ourselves, and we’re missing a huge opportunity to speak from our own experiences about our own needs.

 

I want power for my communities.

We’ve all seen what power can do when it’s held exclusively by people with privilege.  We’ve seen the heartache and headaches it can cause.  But power isn’t bad by definition.  And we haven’t seen what power can do when it’s concentrated in the hands of those who are most deeply impacted by a policy or set of policies.  We haven’t seen what power can do when we have it.

When we take part in political processes, we make it clear to elected officials that we are watching carefully, and we are voting frequently.  We make it clear that they work for us.  We make it clear that, in spite of everything, and in spite of a world that tells us to sit down and shut up, we will scrap and fight for every last inch of space we can get.  We make it clear that, in a system that seeks to represent the people, we are the people.

And here’s the thing: we don’t just get power temporarily.  We build power for the long haul.  Before you know it, trans people are a powerful voting bloc.  Elected officials and voters are forced to take economic justice more seriously, because we’re not going anywhere.  We’re creating accountability to our communities.  We’re not just getting power for ourselves, we’re changing the balance of power for all of us.

 

What you can do. Right now.

  • Call your elected officials.  All of them.  From your City Council member all the way up to the President of the United States.  Tell them what matters to you, and what needs you’re facing.  They have to pay attention – their jobs depend on it.
  • Find organizations that work on policies that impact you & your community.  Look at what kind of work they’ve done in the past, and what their current goals are.  Sign up to join their email list, make a contribution, volunteer your time.  Because overwhelmingly, those organizations are wildly under-resourced, and the number of people paid to staff them are often in the single-digits.  They certainly can’t do it alone – they need you there every step of the way.
  • When they say click, do it.  I know it sounds silly, but when an organization asks you to email your elected officials, do it.  As small as it is, it truly can be the difference between winning and losing.
  • Set up a meeting.  Social justice organizations aren’t hard to access.  Just call and tell them that you’re interested in their work, that you want to help out, and that you’ve got some ideas.  Again, they can use all the help they can get, and many will welcome additional thoughts & energy with open arms. 

breaking down fatphobia

 

I love this video.  It’s such a fantastic breakdown of how conversations about racism can derail, and how to keep them on track.  These same scenarios can be true about a variety of oppressions: homophobia, xenophobia, sexism, transphobia, and, with growing frequency, fatphobia.

Increasingly, the way we think about oppression in the US is as follows: “bigotry exists intentionally in individuals, and I do not intend to be bigoted, therefore I am not a bigot.”  The problem with this logic?  It acknowledges oppression in its smallest form, so that oppression in its larger, more nuanced forms can be denied or eschewed.  On top of that, being “a homophobe,” “a racist,” “a bigot,” et cetera, is also narrowly defined—usually as whether or not you physically or verbally attack others on the basis of their identity.

This is not to say there isn’t a lot of individual oppression happening out there—there is.  But to acknowledge that as a means to deny the experiences and needs of marginalized communities on a broader scale is a red herring.  The reasoning goes like this: I don’t use homophobic slurs, so I’m not a homophobe.  Homophobia exists intentionally in other people.  Because I have acknowledged this, and proven that I am not a homophobe, all of my opinions are objectively true.  Because I do not observe institutional homophobia, it therefore cannot exist.

I get a little sad typing that out.  It’s shortsighted, but it’s really effective.

While many of us may recognize how oppression (and denial of oppression) operates within many communities, not all of us understand how that works with fat people.  As with any system designed to exclude, shame or oppress people on the basis of shared characteristics or identities, it can be easy to assume that fatphobia only exists one-on-one, person-to-person.  Not so.  It’s a series of complex, interlocking systems designed to shame, silence and “correct” fat people. 

Because discussions of fatphobia are new to many of us, we may not recognize it as a layered system of oppression.  Plus, when we fail to recognize the ways in which fatphobia operates, it becomes difficult to recognize that it even exists, much less how to effectively interrupt it.

There are several levels of fatphobia.  Among them: personal fatphobia, cultural fatphobia and institutional fatphobia.  Let’s walk through what each of them look like in action.

 

personal fatphobia

This is where the conversation begins—and often where it ends.  I’d define personal fatphobia as the ways in which fatphobia is perpetuated on a one-on-one, person-to-person basis.  It’s important to note that personal fatphobia doesn’t need to be intentional.  Regardless of what you meant by what you said or did, its impact remains the same.  Some examples include:

 

  • Policing what a fat person is eating, or telling them about their own health.  Again, nobody knows more about diets, exercise, health and nutrition than fatties.  Friends, family members, doctors, partners and even strangers on the street have freely suggested a million and one things that we can do to change our bodies.  Many of us have tried them all.  And for those of us who’ve decided to stop hating our bodies, policing what we eat is a harsh reminder that, within current social systems, we are prohibited from defining our own bodies.

  • Shaming fat people for wearing “unflattering” clothing.  See above.  When I was in high school, my mother made a list of things I shouldn’t wear: cap sleeves, belts, skirts with hemlines above the knee, horizontal stripes, bright colors, drop waists, tank tops, pencil skirts.  Needless to say, my mom-approved outfits looked like, well, something a mom would wear.  The problem is that damn near every style guide and fashion magazine agrees that I should retreat to a life of caftans, muu-muus and graduation gowns.  The implication here is that telling fat people what not to wear is doing us a favor, and allowing us to define how we want to be seen would cause us grievous harm.  I heartily disagree.

 

  • Giving unsolicited suggestions about weight loss “for our health.”  This one’s problematic on a couple of fronts.  First, as witnessed above, lots of fatties know a whole lot about losing weight.  For real.  Second, my health doesn’t require weight loss.  Every physical I have shows that I’m healthy as a horse.  Third, my health is nobody’s business.  Seriously.  Fourth, and perhaps most basically, the assumption underlying unsolicited weight loss suggestions is that we can all agree that my body is repulsive and abhorrent, and that I must hate it and desperately want to change it.  Except that I don’t.

  • Insisting that fat people are universally unattractive, or publicly refusing to date us.  That one’s pretty basic, right?  You don’t have to want to date us, but you don’t have to shout it from the rooftops, and you can’t speak for the whole rest of the world. 

 

Again, personal fatphobia is a big challenge, and is where a lot of internalized fatphobia comes from.  But personal fatphobia isn’t the whole picture.

 

cultural fatphobia

I’d define cultural fatphobia as the norms, values and practices of a culture that devalue fat people, and value thin people as the norm.

A note on thinness: it does not, in and of itself, qualify someone as fitting into the beauty standard.  Other determinants like race, ability, age, gender presentation and much, much more play into that.  Plus, there is still some deep, longstanding pathologization (and simultaneous fetishization) of people—usually women—who are perceived to be “too thin.”  As someone who has not ever been considered “too thin,” I can’t and won’t address that.  When I say that a culture values “thin people” as the norm, I’m referring to the culture’s hegemonic values.

That said, here’s what cultural fatphobia looks like in action:

 

  • Media images of fat people.  We’ve all seen them.  In the best cases, we’re jolly, fun, full of personality, and totally unsexed.  In the worst cases, we’re slovenly, unhygienic, smelly, lazy, and morally corrupt.  Either way, the roles we’re allowed to play are extremely limited.  And an attractive, charismatic fatty?  Perish the thought.  Meanwhile, thin people (again, this is colored by many other characteristics & aspects of identity), can be anything.  Not all thin people in movies, on TV, or in magazines are culturally defined as attractive, but damn near every person who’s culturally defined as attractive (and interesting, worthy, charismatic, etc) is thin. 

 

  • The myth that thinness has always been the beauty standard.  Not so, y’all.  Beauty standards are always, always, always defined by a time and place.  They reflect the values, class politics, available resources and technologies, and historic context of the time and place they come from.  Historically, fatness has, in varying times and places, been considered a sign of wealth, fertility, virtue and more.

 

institutional fatphobia

Institutional fatphobia is arguably the farthest-reaching of them all.  Institutional fatphobia can be defined as the ways in which institutions exclude, underserve and oppress fat people.  Again, these institutionally fatphobic policies don’t need to be intended to exclude fat people—but they do disproportionately impact us.  Examples:

  • Changing BMI standards, and the consequent “Obesity Epidemic.” A lot has been written about this, including this and this, and I’m sure I can’t do it any better.  But to give a quick recap, in a nutshell, the standards of the body mass index changed in the late 1990s, making 25 million people overweight or obese overnight.  And, while nutrition, exercise and health are sorely under-addressed in the United States, to define that as an obesity epidemic is incredibly reductive, and it deflects attention from the way that classism, racism, sexism and other forms of oppression play into body image, food availability, and more.

    Concrete policies around nutrition, availability of food, and health education all break around lines of race, class and gender.  Take schools, for example.  People with more money are likelier to be able to attend smaller schools, where students get more individual attention and schools are likelier to provide fresher, more nutritious foods (ie, less mass-produced canned and processed foods). When we talk about fatness, though, it’s a two-dimensional conversation about reducing fat and calorie intake, rather than a multidimensional conversation about getting your body the vitamins and nutrients it needs. And it’s almost always a question of individuals at the expense of a conversation about policies. Ultimately, blaming fat people for a lack of willpower deflects from a much broader cultural conversation about nutrition, and reifies existing systems of oppression while making them invisible.

 

  • Policies that require fat passengers to buy two seats on airplanes.  Regardless of whether or not you think that fat people should have to buy an extra seat on an airplane, this policy inarguably excludes many fat people, especially those of us who can’t afford to find out at the gate that we need to drop an unexpected $400 on an additional plane ticket.  (Sorry, poor fat people!  No air travel for you.)  Plus, the policy is decidedly punitive.  It’s not designed to be equitable.  It’s not designed to make fat people more comfortable.  It’s designed, quite literally, to make fat people pay for their size, and the tone almost always steers the conversation toward a moral referendum on fatness.

 

what’s missing & what’s next

These lists and definitions aren’t complete and they aren’t meant to be.  Fatphobia is dynamic, changing over time and adapting to the culture that produces it.  So what’s missing from these lists?  What kinds of personal, cultural and institutional fatphobia do you see at play?

why i’m fat positive.

I’m a lot of things: I’m queer, white, upper middle class, an organizer, a nerd, a clothes horse…

I’m also fat.

That’s an easy thing for me to say, and it’s a hard thing for many people to hear. And it impacts me more immediately, frequently and overtly than a lot of my identities.

When I tell people I’m fat, the most common reaction is panic: they assume I’m calling myself ugly, and they feel pressured or compelled to disabuse me of that notion. But people clearly notice my size all the time. Servers at restaurants notice it when they seat me. People on the bus notice it when they decide when and whether to make an empty seat available for me. Nurses notice it when they tell me I’ll have to be weighed as part of my physical, and then wince. It’s the worst-kept secret around. So I just put it out there: I’m fat.

Telling people I’m fat makes them uncomfortable. But telling them I’m fat positive makes people upset. Some get angry (“you’re endangering your health, and if you’re talking about this, you’re endangering other people’s health, too”). Some get shaming (“oh, so that’s why you dress that way. I just figured you didn’t know they were called skinny jeans”). Some even start to mourn (“I’m just worried about what will happen to you if you don’t even try.”). Most are just perplexed and they shut down, wondering on a very basic level why I think fat is okay.

Remarkably, very few people ask. So I figured I’d just say it.

I’m fat positive because I’m a feminist, and I refuse to acknowledge in the magical thinking that if you’re small enough, quiet enough, compliant enough and saccharine enough, you will somehow be enough.

I’m fat positive because I can’t afford to pay for two airline tickets just because the airline industry has decided that my body is the problem—not their outdated seats that haven’t changed in decades.

I’m fat positive because I’ve been fat my whole life. No matter how much I work out or how little I eat, my clothing has never dropped below a size 20 (I know!). I could spend my life in a gym, chasing some mirage that my body will never be, or I could focus on eating and moving in a way that makes me healthy and happy. Or, even more radically, I could not think about dieting, and know that my health is my own damn business. Either way, on the weight continuum, I’ll be somewhere between “superfat” and “ginormous.”

I’m fat positive because every day, fat people give up on all kinds of priorities and dreams because they’re fat. Granted, that’s a piss-poor reason to give up, but you know what? Social messages reinforce that thinking every day. I can’t go to the gym: I’m fat & I’ll be humiliated. I can’t date anyone: who would want to date a fatty? I can’t wear that outfit: I’m fat. Hell, I gave up on acting in college because I didn’t think I stood a chance. I may not have been a great actor, but I don’t know because I knew that being fat was rarely a leg up in auditions.

I’m fat positive because of the pervasive myth that fat women must be lesbians—the underlying assumption being that queer women can “give up” on their bodies, because they don’t “need” to attract men. I’m fat positive because I’m queer, and that shit is homophobic AND sexist.

I’m fat positive because I identify as queer, a category designed to upset essentialist thinking about sexuality and gender. There are tidy lines of thought that prescribe that male = man = masculine = straight, and female = woman = feminine = straight. Fatphobia is one of many things that props all that up. By regulating what our bodies can and can’t look like (in a very gender-specific way), fatphobia perpetuates normative gender and sexuality in a way that keeps all of us trapped.

I’m fat positive because I work at being an anti-racist ally, and fatphobia reifies systems of power that erase the bodies of many people of color, and that stereotype, parody and ultimately nullify their experiences. For example, in order to function as an anti-welfare trope, the welfare queen must be a woman (in this case, a single woman), a single parent (careless and promiscuous), poor (irresponsible), fat (slovenly) and Black (the Other, for middle class white voters). The welfare queen stereotype relies on some level on the fatness of the subject in order to function. And, on top of that, it’s predicated on a fear of someone “taking too much,” crossing boundaries and claiming resources that aren’t hers to take, an almost predatory image of a fat woman of color. This theme of “taking what’s not yours” is repeated with communities of color when it comes to welfare, English-only ballot measures, immigrant rights, and more. And, of course, it plays a core role in fatphobia: fat people eat too much, take up too much space, and generally exist to consume.

I’m fat positive because your weight doesn’t have any necessary relationship to your health, your attractiveness, your worth, your agency, your passions or your personality. But it does have a deep relationship to how others treat you, how you’re allowed to identify, and what kind of ramifications you may face if you reach beyond those bounds.

I’m fat positive because I like to hike and swim and do yoga. But bizarrely, while there’s an overwhelming sense of hostility to just being a fat lady living my life, that hostility is heightened immensely when I’m seen working out. (You’d think they’d like to see me doing something that’s associated with weight loss, wouldn’t you?)

I’m fat positive because there’s a huge, awful machine called the diet industry. It demands that we get as skinny as possible, and then get skinnier. And it tells us that the only way to get skinny is by spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars on gimmicks, pills and such. And know what that is? Classist.

I’m fat positive because, as Maria Bamford puts it, “L’Oreal: Because I’m worth it. And because holding myself to an impossibly high standard of beauty keeps me from starting a riot.” I’m fat positive because sometimes I think we ought to start a riot.

I’m fat positive because, despite my mother’s stellar politics and longstanding values, she couldn’t get past my being a fat kid. She’s a staunch feminist, and a wonderful and caring parent, but she still struggles with my fatness because of an ongoing and deeply destructive constellation of myths about what it means to be fat in the United States.

I’m fat positive because no matter what size you are, you shouldn’t be ashamed. You shouldn’t have to turn on the TV to see therapists making anorexic women cry, or see trainers shout at and shame fat people. I’m fat positive because I don’t think that anyone else should decide what’s okay for you to wear or eat or do or look like. I’m fat positive because even though no one should be subjected to that, millions of us are every day—and we’re shamed into silence and compliance.